Banker’s Remorse: The Fury of Elizabeth Warren

Her brilliant ascendancy has been fueled by exceptional intelligence, relentless ambition, and more ominously, revenge.

Elizabeth Warren, U.S. Senator from Massachusetts

When President Barack Obama nominated Harvard Law professor Elizabeth Warren to lead the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, liberals cheered. Fearful of her reputation, financial institutions pushed back and she was passed over. It was the second time the banking establishment outraged Elizabeth Warren.

The Repo Man

At age 13, young Betty Ann Herring from Norman, Oklahoma, knew that sharing a last name with a smelly fish wasn’t a status symbol. In the future, she would find a better one and keep it through multiple marriages. Warren realized in her early days that what you are is not what you have to be. Everything is subject to change.

She had a few things going for her. There was her superb school record. Her debate skills were so formidable she dreamed she might be a lawyer someday. But after her father had a heart attack, he lost his job at Montgomery Ward and her mother had to find work at the Sears Catalog. It was a time when people would look down on a family with a working mom. The bills piled up and a bank called to say a repo man was on his way to take back the car. In Oklahoma, nothing was nearer than ten miles. How can you function without driving? The stigma left an indelible imprint, and Warren describes this period of her childhood as ‘living on the ragged edge of the middle class.” It would not be the last time she would reach for a poetic embellishment to glorify her ordinary, extraordinary life.

We see this in the current ruckus around Warren’s handwritten “American Indian” ancestry on her Texas State Bar registration card. Because her heritage wasn’t a condition of the bar license, pundits have called her a fabricator. But that is an oversimplification. The reason is that it made a graduate of an out-of-state law school (Rutgers) appear unique and stand out from the mass of University of Texas lawyers. In the way Warren looks at things, it brought her one step away from Norman, Oklahoma, and a step closer to stardom.

Throughout her life, Warren was up against superior resumes, as she is today in the race for her Party’s presidential nomination. While at college, for instance, she received a degree in speech pathology from the University of Houston but failed to take the required courses and so could not qualify for a teacher’s job. She didn’t let that stop her. Warren circumvented the rulebook by applying for an ‘emergency certificate.’ She may have skirted the rules again, according to a popular lawyer blog, by providing legal services in Massachusetts while not a member of the Massachusetts State Bar. Warren discovered early on that rules are meant for breaking, and with a splash of ingenuity, defects are turned into virtues. It became her mantra, and she began her climb.

In Texas, Act Texan

By the time Texas granted her a law license, she had divorced her first husband, Jim Warren, a humble IBM salesman, and traded up for a Harvard Law School professor, Bruce Mann, although never took his name. During her early legal career, Warren worked from home doing wills and estates. She hadn’t yet developed a grudge against the high and mighty, so long as they were paying clients. Her work eventually led to her to the attention of the Senate Majority leader Harry Reid, and she pivoted once again.

What is less well known is that from ‘91–’96, according to the Boston Globe, Warren was a Texas Republican when George W. Bush was elected governor. Throughout this period, she maintained her Republican party affiliation even though Bill Clinton was elected and then reelected president (’92 and ’96). It makes her claim that she transformed into a Democrat for populist reasons a matter of convenient hindsight.

Warren has a chameleon-like instinct to become whatever is necessary to get what she wants. It isn’t a pretense, as her detractors suggest, but a talent for knowing what is going to impress influential people who can do her good. Not surprisingly, after she moved North, it was goodbye Lonestar Republican, hello Cambridge uber-liberal.

Warren’s biographical distortions haven’t hurt her in the era of Trump, and most likely, the Texas Bar registration fiasco will go away by the next news cycle. But it spells trouble for the business world, and not merely because of her lifelong grudge. She is in a different fight now than a Senate Banking Committee hearing where moderately liberal Massachusetts voters are her target.

Primary Colors

Primary battles are the political equivalent of extreme fighting. Warren’s contestants in the 2020 gladiatorial exhibition are all-star quality women with equally enormous ambition. The discernible difference is they come from better states, politically speaking. It means she is going to have to take off the gloves. It spells trouble for business.

The six states that make up New England deliver 33 electoral college votes, only four more than Kirsten Gillibrand’s New York, where both candidates run close to even in search queries as a proxy of popularity, according to Google Trends. In California, with an electoral tally of 55, Warren trails Kamala Harris 26% to 68%. Democratic primary candidates do not win without New York and California.

The electoral map suggests the only way the math works is to push herself into the hearts and minds of New Yorkers and Californians. She has a surefire way to do that, as the people who wear pinstripes to work will find out soon enough.

When Democratic primary voters have a choice such as this, populist politics is likely to take a radical turn. Warren’s antipathy to banks is more profound than the memory of a car repossessed or the ganging up that denied her the CFPB job. The secret to Warren’s success is that when in Rome she eats pasta. She knows full well that what gets under the skin of coastal liberals is big business run amok. She is going to make sure the voters know she has the credentials to put it on a short leash, and the animus to get the job done.

Professor of Leadership. Extraordinary Lives Project. Author “Be Somebody” (2021); 2019 Telly Award; ex-publisher Forbes